A few weeks ago, the Iranian novelist, Iraj Bizshekzad, passed away in Los Angeles at the age of 94. He was famous for his novel “My Uncle Napoleon,” which won the approval of Iranian and other critics as a cultural phenomenon, with its social criticism and satire that made it a masterpiece of contemporary Persian literature, and its characters and story became a reference In the imaginations of many Iranians and other readers who read the novel translated into English, French, German, Russian and others.
In his article on the Al Jazeera English website, Hamid Dabashi, Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at Columbia University, wrote on the anniversary of Bezhekzad’s departure, recalling his memories 5 decades ago in the Iranian capital (Tehran), and Dabashi said, “In the early seventies I was a student I attended university in pre-revolutionary Tehran, and I divided my time between working in individual jobs to provide housing and taking care of my studies.”
"I was an immigrant worker more than a liberal student, and my education from A to Z was more street-related than the classroom, reliant mostly on cheap magazines and banned books from second-hand booksellers," he added.
Every morning I ran to the station at the intersection of Pahlavi Street and Shah Reza Street to take the bus to the campus on the north side of the city, and I made sure to stop, at least once a week, at the nearby newsstand to buy the latest issue of Ferdowsi magazine; The leading literary magazine of the time.
"In those days I would jump joyfully on the bus, walk to the last row of seats, sit by the window and turn the pages of a light magazine to find Iraj Bizchikzad's latest writing on Die Jean Napoleon (beloved uncle), and laugh at myself as I read until I reach my destination".
Dabashi considered the day he read a new part of Bezechkazad's masterpiece the most prominent event of his week, and said, "This book, which Dick Davis later translated into English titled (My Uncle Napoleon), was the literary space, where we boys and girls from outside the capital laugh at our reluctant presence in the world." In the bosom of our capital, which embraced us more than we could have imagined.
The critical role of patriotic literature is to help people isolated from towns and villages feel part of the national consciousness.
In this sense, says Dabashi, "I only became Iranian when I sat in the back of that bus, read part of that book, and thought I was welcome in the literary history of my country."
Iranian novelist Iraj Bizshekzad died at the age of 94 in Los Angeles, USA (Iranian press)
Satire and literary quibbling
Iraj Bizshekzad (1928-2022) was an Iranian founder;
A whole generation of Iranians has grown up on his incredibly popular satirical novel "My Uncle Napoleon." Recently, another book by Bizshekzad "Hafez in Love" has been translated into English, but a large number of his books are still hidden in the original Persian language and the whole world is unaware of its existence.
Born into a middle-class family in Tehran in the 1920s, Iraj Bizshekzad completed his early education in Iran and went to France to study law, eventually returning to his homeland to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Like most other Iranian writers, he had to make a living doing something else, but satire was his talent, and he soon emerged as one of the best satirists in his homeland.
Climbing to the top of the literary establishment of Persian satire and staying there comfortably over decades is no small feat.
Indeed, among the notable figures from the distant past, such as Saadi and Obaid Zakani, and among the more recent ones such as Ali Akbar Den Khodeh and Iraj Mirza, Bizshekzad remains in a prominent place among them.
The art of laughing at conspiracy theories
My Uncle Napoleon, the most famous book by Bizshekzad, is set in Tehran in the early 1940's, as the country was on the path of modernization, and during the Allied occupation of Iran.
The events mostly take place in the house of the unknown narrator, a huge complex in which 3 families live under the tyranny of a paranoid man.
The man "the Patriarch" served for a short period in the army, but his intense suspicion and hostility to the British made him sympathize with the French Emperor Napoleon and fabricate stories about the battles he led with the British army to liberate Iran, and therefore he became nicknamed "Uncle Napoleon".
The novel revolves between the geopolitics of the region, European politics, and British colonialism, and everyone comes to the house of this extended family to play in the pages of the Bizshekzad novel.
Shortly after Dabashi left Iran for the United States in 1976, prominent director Naser Taqfai turned "My Uncle Napoleon" into an exceptionally successful TV series.
The television "adaptation" was so successful that it spawned a whole new generation of ardent fans of the story and its rich and complex characters, especially the titular protagonist Uncle Napoleon, his fawning butler Mash Kassem, and the narrator, a high school student who is in love with his cousin, Cousin Napoleon.
Years after the series aired, in 1996, Iraj Bezhekzad's masterpiece found new life and a new audience when Dick Davis skilfully translated it into English.
Other translations soon followed and gradually created a new community of readers for the novel, made up mostly of second-generation Iranian immigrants in the United States, Europe, and beyond.
Thus, the novel has enjoyed stages of popularity in largely different eras from the early seventies to the present day, but there is an emotional distance between these stages.
When we were reading the novel in stages in the early seventies we had no evidence that the revolution would turn the whole country upside down, but by the time it was published in book form, its subsequent television adaptation appeared, and the story came before a new audience, the cries of I heard The first revolution is loud all over Iran."
Finally, when the English translation of the novel appeared in 1996, the revolution was not even a distant memory, but rather a historical fact for most of its new readers. Therefore, there are archaeological layers of social knowledge in and around this iconic novel.
What makes the social knowledge about the novel consistent across its various movements is the cynicism of Iran's obsession with conspiracy theories, especially the traumatic compulsion many Iranians share to believe that the British are behind everything and anything that goes wrong in their country.
It is true that the British were indeed behind many things, including Reza Shah’s coming to power and the intelligence coup in 1953, so the Iranians can be excused from some conspiratorial thinking, according to the writer, but Bezechzad’s novel also does not deny the British colonial plots against Iran and its region, as it does not allow Also, the Iranian obsession with conspiracy theories could erupt without balancing a larger plot and cast of characters that puts those ideas into real life.
The writer continues that this preoccupation with conspiracy theories is, of course, not limited to the Iranians or any other country. Americans have a large share of conspiracy theories, including those related to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, to the events of September 11, and the presidential elections that toppled Donald Trump.
The fact that this Iranian novel mocks the national obsession with the British does not mean that the British were not the main cause of the catastrophe in modern Iranian history. Rather, the novel paints only a comic but also true picture of one aspect of Iranian history and identity.Keywords: